Stephen Cohn: Round of 32
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Brad Underwood and Lovie Smith are Director of Athletics Josh Whitman’s ‘sexy’ hires in his short tenure so far at Illinois, but women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey and volleyball coach Chris Tamas may end up being the better hires.
That is not to say, though, that Underwood is not the best hire for the current state of Illinois basketball. After firing John Groce in March prior to an NIT Tournament run, Whitman brought in Underwood, and Illini nation has been nothing but impressed so far.
With a fairly barebones roster to work with this season, Underwood’s team may struggle, but a weak non-conference schedule should have Illinois starting close to 10-1, and that will build the team’s momentum toward the bulk of conference season after the New Year. Go .500 in conference play (doable), take a game in the Big (Apple) Ten Tournament, and Illinois is sitting at 20 wins and will ride into the tourney. This team is not ready to go any farther than that yet, though, but next year??? ;)
Tristen Kissack: First Four Out… Again
Illinois had an opportunity last season to end the stretch of missed NCAA tournaments, yet failed to do so after an awful, awful loss at Rutgers. Looking at that loss, however, it might not have been such a bad thing for the future of Illinois sports. If the Illini win that game and make the NCAA tournament, there’s a chance John Groce is still the coach and Jeremiah Tilmon is suiting up for the Illini Friday night.
Alas, that is not the case.
The Illini pitched Groce and brought in one of the best coaches in the country, Brad Underwood. He inherits quite the group of guys. He only returns two starters off last year’s team and two guys who saw significant minutes. The team is talented, but there are a lot of question marks still surrounding them. Transfer Mark Alstork has yet to prove himself at a Big Ten basketball level, and his performance last Friday at EIU was far from head-turning. Michael Finke is a liability on defense against other big men, and Leron Black hasn’t figured out how to stay out of foul trouble.
I’m just as excited as anyone else to see how Brad Underwood can turn this program around. As for this year though, I don’t see it being done early enough in the conference season to solidify the Illini as a tournament team.
Illinois is going to lose five or more non-conference games this year and start Big Ten play run out of the gym by Northwestern. The Illini will eventually figure it out and start competing with some decent teams late in the year and may even get a very surprising win or two, but this will be the worst season, record-wise, in the history of Illinois men’s basketball.
However, surprisingly, fans won’t be all that upset because of a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament and clear improvement throughout the year. The starting point from which that improvement will build, however, is very, very, very, very, very low.
Sean Cler: NIT Tournament
This is a very talented roster, a lot of athleticism and an up-tempo offense we've all been salivating over. All things considered, this team is really young and raw. Underwood is going to do his fair share of screaming throughout this season, and we will improve as the year goes on.
I have my doubts about Mark Alstork’s ability to be the primary scoring option on this team. Without what we were expecting from him, we will be relying on inconsistent freshmen for scoring which will either excite the heck out of everyone or frustrate fans to a level we are all too familiar with.
This year's team will come up just short of the tournament — the Illini don't have the upperclassmen horses Oklahoma State did starting off to lead Underwood to a tournament quite yet. But, success IS coming.
Michael Berns: Nothing
There seems to be little doubt hiring Brad Underwood was the right move — and that’s not just Illinois fans speaking, that’s coming from neutral college basketball experts across the country. The main worry with Illinois in this transition from the John Groce era to the Underwood era is leadership.
Through all of the highs and mostly lows of the last four tournament-less seasons, Malcolm Hill and Tracy Abrams were tough, quality leaders for this team. There’s talent on the 2017-18 roster, but it’s young talent. Everyone is starting from scratch given the new system in place. The learning curve is immense and the team will go through freshmen growing pains all season long. I predict the Illini finish 11th in the Big Ten, leaving plenty of room to prove doubters like me wrong.
Erich Fisher: NIT
There is tremendous talent on this roster, that’s a fact. Brad Underwood is one of the top-20 coaches in the nation, that seems to be the general consensus.
However, there are two significant things this year’s roster will struggle with: defense and leadership. Just starting off, there is not a true big man on the roster that can be a threat in the paint on one end and be a dominant rim protector on the other. That alone will hurt this team significantly once they head into conference play.
When it comes to overall defense, like Underwood said, defensive chemistry is one of the hardest things for a team to develop and it will more than likely not develop until the last third or fourth of the season, which makes sense for such a young roster.
Secondly, leadership is a huge question mark for this team. Underwood hasn’t said anyone has stepped up as a definite leader so far, which could be a problem. He said he has been putting that responsibility on Finke and Black, but those are unfamiliar roles for those two and they are still adjusting to it. If anyone steps up as a definite leader on this roster, it will be Mark Smith — he just seems to fit that persona. The thing is, when will he fill those shoes and can he as a freshman?
This is a very young and raw roster that will struggle for the first two-thirds of the season, but it will put it together the last third to make a respectable run in the Big Ten Tournament and get knocked out of the NIT. Illini fans should be fine with that as their team will come back stronger and more refined next year to make a possible NCAA Tournament berth.
Matt O’Neall: NIT Final Four
I don’t think Illinois is going to be bottom-four in the Big Ten, but I don’t think Underwood can fix everything in one season either. I expect a pretty decent non-conference season, followed by a wake up call in the Big Ten. This team is going to get better as the season moves on, but a lot of what Underwood does on both sides of the ball involves rhythm and chemistry.
Hopefully, by the end of the year, the offense is humming and you can see how the Illini will be successful in the future. However, the team is very young, and very undersized. They are going to struggle early in conference play. Even though Underwood turned an 0-6 Big 12 start at OSU into a tourney bid, they had an NBA Draft pick running the show. Illinois doesn’t have that elite level talent to cover up youth and a steep learning curve.
With all of that said, I don’t think other Big Ten teams are going to want to see the Illini on their side of the bracket at MSG and it wouldn’t shock me if Underwood gets them back to MSG for the NIT Final Four. These guys will be playing their best ball by then and Underwood will not lose the locker room. These guys will play hard for their coach until the end.
Mark Schaer: NIT
In the past four years or so, I was always the one to get too excited about where the basketball season was heading. After John Groce’s first season (with an NCAA Tourney appearance), I thought things would go uphill each year. Groce said all the right things that a fan wanted to hear, but year after year, I was just disappointed.
I think Brad Underwood has what it takes to make this program consistently competitive again, but we need to be realistic about expectations. I think the team will be right on the cusp of 20 wins or so, and I’m thinking the under is a more likely scenario due to the inexperience of the roster and the strength of the Big Ten. And not only is the roster young, but it is small. I never thought losing guys like Mike Thorne and Maverick Morgan would hurt the team too much, but with Michael Finke starting as the “big man” for the starting five, I’m a little nervous. I know Underwood’s system is “positionless,” but defending the low post will be the bigger issue that needs to get solved.
Now, the more optimistic side of me is excited about one thing: improvement as the season goes on. Everything I’ve read, watched, and heard secondhand about Brad Underwood tells me he two things Illinois has been missing in recent years: great basketball knowledge and grit. He’s not going to let his guys slack, and he is going to run schemes on both offense and defense that will excite fans.
I think guys like Mark Smith, Kipper Nichols and Leron Black will see huge improvements over the season, but a winning streak late in conference play will not push the Illini past the bubble. But don’t worry, we won’t have to wait too much longer before these Illini are dancing again.
Austin Jabs: Round of 64
Maybe I am being a homer, I don’t care.
I think that by midseason the Illini will be rolling with the system Underwood wants to implement. The majority of pundits have the Illini sitting in the bottom four of the Big Ten, if not the bottom two. I simply think that is impossible. Brad Underwood is a winner and, from what I have seen, he is one heck of a coach. He will get them rolling by the time Big Ten play rolls around, and I see no way Underwood does not make the NCAA Tournament.
I am willing to eat these words if I am wrong, but right now, even AFTER the EIU loss (scrimmage=glorified practice), Whitman was right: WE WILL WIN.